Kalmykia is a small but very colorful region in southern Russia. Many travelers visit its capital, Elista, during visits to the Astrakhan or Volgograd regions. Endless steppes, Buddhist shrines, and the incredible hospitality of locals – we have collected the main reasons to visit Kalmykia at least for a couple of days.
1. Get to know Buddhist culture
Kalmykia is not the only region in Russia where the majority of the population is Buddhist. However, all the others – Buryatia, Tuva, Altai and the region of Baikal – are in the Asian part of Russia, which makes Kalmykia the only Buddhist republic in all of Europe! There are several buddhist shrines, such as the Golden Abode of Buddha Shakyamuni, a huge snow-white structure with golden roofs. Along the perimeter of the building are prayer drums with mantras inside: it is believed that if they are unwinded, the mantras will be read. In the temple itself is a nine-meter Buddha statue – the largest in Russia and Europe, it is covered with gold leaf and encrusted with diamonds. Anyone can visit the monastery, talk with monks, healers, practitioners of Tibetan medicine, or with astrologers: they welcome everyone with hospitality and gladly talk about their people and religion.
Another important location for Buddhists is the monastery of Syakusn-Syum or, as it is called in the people, the “holy abode of enlightened monks.” This hurul is located six kilometers from Elista, near the village of Arshan, and is the center of spiritual education in the republic. The Dalai Lama personally visited here several times.
Smaller Khurules can be seen in other settlements of the republic: in Lagani, Gorodovichovsk (the local temple contains the only tantric monastery in Europe), Yashkul, Tsagan Amane, Small Derbetah.
2. Feel in another country without leaving Russia
The fact that most of the Kalmyks practice Buddhism has left a certain imprint on the architectural appearance of the cities of the republic. Especially a lot of colorful monuments, of course, in Elista. For example, several suburgans (monolithic ritual structures): The Step of Reconciliation, the Stupa of Enlightenment, the Seven Days Pagoda. At the entrance to the park “Friendship” you can see the Golden Gate “Altn Bosch” with illustrations dedicated to the past and present life of the Kalmyk people. All these unusual buildings resemble either Tibet, Indonesia or China – it all depends on the power of your imagination and tourist experience. Believe me, the pictures of these attractions will not remain deprived of attention in your Instagram!
But residential areas of the capital of the republic closer to Chess City (the area built for the XXXIII Chess Olympiad in 1998) are similar to the streets of Uzbekistan: houses are closed from the scorching heat and steppe dust with special carved panels.
3. Try a very specific cuisine
Kalmytskaya cuisine is able to shock even residents of nearby regions, although it would seem – neighbors. Tea with butter, soup with insides and baked in the ground stomach – does not sound very appetizing, but in fact it is really tasty! So, the main dishes of Kalmyk cuisine:
· Dotur – soup of thick broth, lamb giblets (liver, scar, kidneys) with the addition of fat and blood. Serve with raw onions cut directly into a plate.
· Mahan Silkytan is another entree, soup with chopped pieces of lamb brisket and whole potatoes. And with onions, of course. Mongolian peoples believe that the Mahan is a dish curative, able to defeat heartburn and difficulties in sexual life.
· Segseryk – boiled lamb on the bone with homemade dough (the dish is remotely similar to Dagestan’s khinkal).
· Salmon is a lamb liver fried in a mesh of lamb fat.
· Borzoki – flat tortillas, fried in boiling oil. To taste it is a cross between doughnuts and wood. Usually Kalmyks eat it together with soups instead of bread.
· Kur is an ancient dish of Kalmyk shepherds, which is prepared today on the occasion of a big holiday. The meat of the ram is cut, placed in the lamb’s stomach, which is then sewn up. Then the stomach together with the contents is placed in a hole dug in the ground, covered with ash and coal, and on top – the ground. There meat and languishes about 10-20 hours.
· Horsemeat is a popular meat for Kalmyks. In local supermarkets you can easily find jerky and dried meat, cassock sausage and fresh tenderloin. By the way, often travelers in Kalmykia manage to try and camel!
· Dairy products: kumys from mare’s milk, chigyan (something between kefir and sourdough), shuyurumg fat (dry curd), and khusan (cakes of dried cottage cheese).
· Jomba is a Kalmyk tea. It is not everyone’s taste, but if you like, it usually falls in love once and for all, buying tile tea as a souvenir. The national drink is made from this very tile tea, milk or cream, butter, salt, nutmeg, and bay leaf. Jomba quenches thirst in the heat and warms in the cold.
4. Learn the history of the Kalmyks
The history of the Kalmyk people is full of dramatic twists, and a good guide will tell you it without school academicism. Initially, the Kalmyks were nomads, Mongols who migrated to the Caspian lands from Central Asia. If the Kalmyks had good relations with the Don Cossacks, they periodically clashed with the tsarist authorities. But in Soviet times, in 1943, all Kalmyks from the local lands were forcibly deported to Siberia and the far North. Deportation took place in appalling conditions, with many dead on the road. In many ways, because of this event, the people remained so small.
The deportation of Kalmyks is dedicated to the Elysian monument “Exodus and Return.” The work of the sculptor Ernst the Unknown was cast in New York and presented to the Kalmyk people in 1996. This memorial is full of symbols and allusions: it is interesting to consider, but at the same time it is difficult because the work represents suffering.
By the way, “Exodus and Return” is not the only sculpture in Elista, directly related to the history and culture of the Kalmyks. For example, in the park “Friendship” you can see a monument dedicated to the narrator Eelyan Ovla, singing the epic “Jangar” – a favorite national work of Kalmyks. And at the entrance to the city was installed an impressive “Golden Rider” dedicated to the main character of this work.
5. Visit the steppe
The steppe may well seem exotic to the inhabitants of Central Russia and do not think that it is only scorched earth, stretching for hundreds of kilometers. Kalmykia has its own hot springs (e.g., in Har Buluk or near the village of Adyk), the salty lake Of Manych-Gudilo with nesting pink pelicans, a lake with medicinal properties of the Great Yashaltin, known for its extraordinary mineral composition. The Kalmyk steppe itself is especially good in spring, in April: at this time, it is covered with a green carpet of fragrant grass and bright tulips. Be sure to visit the Hanata and Black Lands reserves: camels roam freely, saiga, and herds of wild horses graze freely.